Justice

2016’s First Execution Is For A Murder That May Not Have Happened

CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Slocum

Protesters picket before the scheduled execution of Mexican-born death row inmate Jose Medellin, Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2008, in Huntsville, Texas.

Texas is scheduled carry out the first execution of 2016 on Wednesday night. Unless a last minute stay is granted, Richard Masterson will be put to death for murder — even though there’s evidence that the murder never actually happened.

Masterson was convicted for strangling Darin Honeycutt to death in 2001, which he maintains was an accident. Masterson initially confessed to the crime when he was interrogated by the police, but he has since retracted his statement. Masterson claims Honeycutt died while they were having consensual sex, so he fled in panic. He also says he made the confession as a suicide attempt when he was depressed from drug withdrawal.

Texas Execution

CREDIT: ASSOCIATED PRESS/Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Central to the case against Masterson is an autopsy that determined Honeycutt’s death was homicide. But as the Intercept reports, the man who conducted the autopsy has a lengthy history of mistakes and ethical issues. Texas medical examiner Paul Shrode had been previously fired for reporting that another man in Ohio, Richard Nields, strangled someone to death. Nields was sentenced to death for the crime, but was commuted when another doctor confirmed that Shrode’s report was not based on scientific evidence. Shrode also lied about his educational background.

In Masterson’s case, Shrode dismissed substantial evidence that Honeycutt, who had a 90 percent blockage in one of the arteries to his heart at the time he died, may not have been murdered at all, but suffered a heart attack caused by consensual erotic asphyxiation.

Masterson’s lawyer argues Shrode manipulated the autopsy results to line up with the defendant’s confession, which was made weeks before his report was given. Pathologists have also slammed Shrode’s qualifications as a medical examiner.

During his time on death row, Masterson repeatedly asked to be executed. When he was eventually prescribed anti-depressants, he walked back on the requests.

Masterson’s lawyers have filed numerous appeals, citing Shrode’s inaccurate findings and falsified credentials. They have also brought up Masterson’s history of mental illness, in addition to the inadequate counsel he received from his lawyers.

“Because Richard’s lawyers failed him at every stage, the court system will not
provide relief to him based on insurmountable procedural obstacles,” Attorney Gregory Gardner wrote in a clemency petition. “The governor is the last line of defense to stop the execution of an innocent, severely mentally ill man.”

Texas has executed more people than any other state in the U.S. One-third of all executions take place there. Thirteen people were executed last year alone, including one who had an intellectual disability.

Shrode’s ability to sway the Masterson case reflects a bigger problem with criminal prosecutions, which often rely on medical experts whose methods may not be as scientifically rigorous as a jury might assume. Prosecutors sometimes base their cases entirely on unscientific forensic analysis of bite marks, shoe prints, and hair microscopy as proof of a crime, even though these forms of evidence have been proven to be inconclusive at best.

Texas has a history of using this kind of junk science to prosecute people. One man who spent 25 years in prison for murder walked free in October, after a dentist confirmed that teeth marks are not scientifically reliable evidence.

Flawed science and questionable experts continue to be used to send innocent people to prison. And those experts are often pressured by law enforcement to draw conclusions that will make the prosecution process easier.

“Even with science that is established and accepted in the courts, there’s been a failure to take the code of ethics that governs experts seriously,” Senior Attorney Charlotte Morrison of the Equal Justice Initiative previously told ThinkProgress. “In our political climate, finality is valued more than accuracy. To acknowledge a mistake is typically seen as weakness.”